Aidan Fulp doesn’t necessarily envy the Dubuque Fighting Saints’ staff for the difficult roster decisions they’ll have to make in a few weeks.
But the third-year defenseman sure likes the prospects for the team’s 10th season since returning to the United States Hockey League.
The Saints brought 31 players to Dubuque last week and began on-ice workouts Thursday. They open the four-game exhibition schedule with a home-and-home series with Cedar Rapids this weekend and play a home-and-home with Green Bay the following weekend before the staff must trim the roster to 23 for the USHL opener later this month.
“From what I’ve seen in practice and the couple of scrimmages we’ve had, this is probably going to be the hardest year for the coaches in terms of making cuts,” Fulp said. “The competition has been unbelievable, and the pace has been really good. I’m excited for the year.
“We knew coming in that we’d have to go through physical testing, so that gave all of us extra incentive to come into camp in shape. And that’s made it easier to push each other from the first day of practice.”
Third-year head coach Oliver David returned only one staff member — equipment manager Brian Stoya — this season after others earned opportunities elsewhere. Evan Dixon and Justin Hale joined the team as assistant coaches, Peter Samargia will serve as the goaltending consultant, and Megan Monjeau takes over the trainer’s responsibilities following a stint at William Penn University in Oskaloosa, Iowa.
“The last month or so has really run like a well-oiled machine, which you probably might not expect with three new staff members,” David said. “They’ve all been swamped, but I’ve been impressed with how well-organized everything is. That’s definitely helped us get off on the right foot.
“It helps that we have so many returning veterans in camp this year. They’ve taken the initiative to steer guys in the right direction. The important thing is they believe in why we do things and know how to go about it. It’s been a really good starting point as we build our foundation.”
The Saints’ camp features 10 players who played full-time in Dubuque last season. That includes forwards Riese Gaber, twins Dylan and Ty Jackson, Cooper Haar, Mason McCormick and Bram Scheerer, as well as defensemen Michael Feenstra, Fulp, Luke Robinson and Kaelan Taylor. Defensemen Braden Doyle, a Los Angeles Kings draft pick this summer, and Ian Pierce and forward Ryan Beck spent time in Dubuque as affiliates list players last season.
Dubuque also added USHL experience in forward Stephen Halliday, a potential first-round NHL Draft pick in June, in the Central Illinois dispersal draft and picked up former Green Bay defenseman Ben Schultheis in the USHL Draft.
That experience has been invaluable to the 10 forwards, three defensemen and three goaltenders trying to make the USHL for the first time.
“I remember being one of those kids who came to camp and had the goal of making the USHL, so I understand exactly what’s going through their heads,” Robinson said. “There were times I got in my own head, and it hurt the way I played. So, I really like to talk those guys through it, hear their concerns and reassure them. Take a breath.
“The big thing is reminding them that their problems aren’t special. Everybody feels sore. Everybody is going to make mistakes here and there. It’s how you respond to making those mistakes. It’s a lot easier to battle through those issues when you understand that it’s not just you having them.”
Dubuque emphasized goaltending in the USHL Draft process and looks solid so far. Buffalo Sabres draft pick Erik Portillo, from the Frolunda Indians in Sweden, will be backed up by Aidan McCarthy, who starred for the Victory Honda U18 squad. Hobie Hedquist is in camp as an affiliates list player, but will return to the Sioux Falls Power youth team to start the season and will more than likely receive a few call-ups during the season.
The new forward group will be highlighted by Mark Cheremeta, who will return to Boston University next year after additional seasoning in the USHL. The Saints also brought in junior-experienced forwards Jimmy Glynn, Matthew Kopperud, Jack Conroy, Thomas Middleton, Reggie Millette, Gabe Temple and Antonio Venuto. Robert Cronin played prep school hockey, and Riley Stuart starred at the U16 level for the Phoenix Jr. Coyotes.
The defense corps includes Minnesota high school standouts Wyatt Kaiser and Joey Foss, along with promising youngster Riley Rosenthal, who starred at the South Florida Hockey Academy and is projected to start the season on the affiliates list.
David hopes to get good reads on as many players as possible during this weekend’s first exhibition games. Dubuque hosts on Friday night before visiting Cedar Rapids on Saturday.
“We really want to get more information on who’s who and what’s what after this first weekend,” David said. “We want to be in a position where we can ask the right questions of ourselves, and come back to have a good third week of camp. We want to feel confident in the decisions we’re going to have to make in a few weeks.”